Australia has its first government leader who is indigenous, and he is right-wing. Could his path to power hold lessons for conservative parties elsewhere?
Adam Giles won in a palace coup in the Northern Territory yesterday, as the ruling Country-Liberal (CLP) party dumped its former leader whilst he was on an overseas trip.
Giles' rise to the top marks the culmination of a transformation of Territory politics empowering indigenous voters. Last year they turned en masse against the Australian Labor party (ALP), who had counted on their block vote for many years.
Neglect of indigenous issues lay behind their mass defection to a CLP which had previously been associated with redneck politics. The party recruited a number of indigenous candidates who won in 2012 on enormous swings away from the ALP.
The new indigenous MPs won with 'conservative' policies seen as repellent by Australian liberals but which indigenous people, particularly Aboriginal women, saw as more closely matching their interests, according to the veteran Aboriginal leader Marcia Langton. She explained last year in Online Opinion:
Aboriginal people were fed up with left-wing causes imposed from down south, be they live cattle–export restrictions, opposition to mining or rolling back the intervention. And so the 11-year-old ALP government was blown to the four winds.The 'intervention' was the extremely controversial reaction by the previous John Howard conservative government to a report on shocking levels of child sexual abuse in some Aboriginal communities. The package included, amongst other measures, the deployment of soldiers, quarantining of welfare benefits, bans on alcohol sales, and removal of customary law and cultural practice considerations from bail applications.
The Territory’s rural conservatives have finally figured out – as Bob Katter and others in Queensland have long known – that they have more in common with Aboriginal people than either have with city folk. Both groups need land-based industries to support their economies and way of life. Both share a deep disdain for greens, animal liberationists and bureaucrats, whether from Darwin or Canberra.
Langton details how the previous Territory ALP government had been seen by bush Aboriginal communities as misspending the millions of federal government dollars being directed at them in the 'intervention' and the bipartisan national promise to 'close the gap', ending child development and health differences, which accompanied Kevin Rudd's apology to the 'stolen generations' in 2007.
The caravans of high-end, late-model white Toyotas returning from the bush to Darwin and Alice Springs on Friday afternoon, and the young, shiny, well-fed members of the helping class alighting to enter their homes and hotels, are evident for all to see. The gap between this high-income group and the desperately poor Aboriginal people they purportedly serve is played out in all social relations in the Northern Territory. The whites-only revelry along Mitchell Street in Darwin on any Friday night is a jarring sight. Evident too are the regular small plane charters unloading teams of bureaucrats in the communities for endless consultations: it may be just talk, but it sure isn’t cheap.Both the the British Labour party and the American Democrats have been accused of taking their ethnic minority voters for granted. Their conservative opposition have, like the CLP in the Territory, similarly been accused of pandering to their redneck vote. The CLP's electoral success and the dramatic 'flipping' of indigenous votes may be particular to the vast Territory but it does demonstrate that 'voting blocks' are not necessarily 'loyal' and should never be taken for granted by politicians.
Aboriginal people voted to end this conspicuous waste.
Time and again, native title groups have spent years getting an agreement with a resource company over the line, negotiating income streams that might shift indigenous people from the margins to the centre of regional economic development in return for land access, only for a ragtag team of ‘wilderness’ campaigners to turn up with an entourage of disaffected Aboriginal protesters to stop development at the eleventh hour.
With luck, the NT election represents a tipping point. The time of dismissing Aboriginal aspirations for economic development is over.